EU Association Agreement – A High Price But Where We Belong!

The FINANCIAL -- On June 27, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili signed the highly touted EU Association Agreement, including its free trade chapters, with the President of the European Council Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and heads of EU member states.

Despite recent statements from Moscow that the EU deal is a “sovereign right,” the three ex-Soviet countries that signed the agreement - Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine - have each paid a high price, including in human lives and territory, where such “sovereign right” is normally exercised.

Although the same big bill was sent to all, when it comes to public attitude towards the European Union, Georgia stands out. Compared to its sister countries, Georgia is clearly leading the way, having consistently registered positive attitudes towards the EU since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, and more positively assessing EU projects and assistance than others.

Georgia is also the least problematic for the EU if visa restrictions for Georgians are completely lifted. As part of a large consortium, since 2011, GORBI has been heading up EU sponsored Eastern Neighborhood Partnership Initiative (ENPI) Barometer surveys in 6 regional countries. In 2013, the survey asked representative samples of respondents if they thought of moving to another country in the next two years. 21% of Moldovans answered positively, fewer in Georgia (10%) and an even smaller number (5%) of Ukrainians were thinking about moving to another country within the next two years. However, in terms of actual population size, the 5% registered among Ukrainians is still two times larger than the combined percentages of Georgian and Moldovan respondents (2.4 million vs. 1.3 million, respectively).

Let’s focus on Georgia
With every tenth adult Georgian likely to move to another country within the next two years, 14% expect to stay less than a year, 4% think of permanent immigration and a large majority (67%) will not return back for a few years or more.

If wishes come true, the EU would host the majority of Georgian immigrants (54%), the USA will “suffer” less, with 28%, and Russia will not have to worry about the rights of the 17% of Georgians who would end up there (the majority of this 17% speaks Russian but are not yet Russian passports holders). However, truth to be told, in terms of actual figures, the 10% of the adult respondents who said that they would likely move to another country is only about 350,000 people. Most are young, educated and are likely stay in Georgia or return back and contribute to the country’s economic growth and possibly even defense.

The signing the EU Association Agreement is truly a major milestone in Georgia’s recent history. However, the big existential question still remains – what might be Russia’s next move? Clearly, Russia still resists any further Georgian movement towards NATO. Fresh statements by NATO officials that Georgia will not be granted a membership action plan (MAP) this year sends the wrong message. In no way does this lead to a road map that will finally secure Georgia against another military conflict.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has responded to the signing by saying that Russia will be carefully watching the situation and will react if Georgia’s newly enhanced ties with the EU negatively impacts on its own trade relations with Georgia and regional countries. He added that Moscow is ready to hold talks with Tbilisi to deepen trade ties, though this is less likely. It still worth noting that Russia is not changing its official military doctrine from “protection of Russian language speakers abroad” to “protection of economic interests abroad,” because this would not simply end at the Polish and Turkish borders! Whatever happens during the upcoming NATO summit in September, Georgia will anyway continue moving towards the alliance, slowly but steadily. Whether as an united state or not, this is unpreventable outcome, and in spite of the reality on the ground (emerging street demonstrations to support Eurasian Economic Union, babyish criticisms of European values by some commentators and political leaders, etc).

GORBI’s nationwide survey in Georgia conducted in May 2014 showed that 71% of the public was aware of Georgia’s intention to sign the EU Association Agreement. But not all cohorts of society had the same level of awareness. Young people were far less aware (30% difference between age groups as seen in Chart 2) compared to older adults. Also, fewer rural dwellers compared to those living in the capital city or urban areas were impacted by the information gap.

For Georgia, there is a clear cut rationale behind NATO integration – security. But why are we Georgians so eager and desperate to associate with the EU? It is not really because we are Europeans; many politicians and academics are repeatedly saying this and this should only be considered as a message for their peers. It is just because we want to live where we culturally and historically belong – and that’s it!

As a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients, GORBI is the only Georgian member of the Gallup International research network to have over two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as Mongolia and Iraq.

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